Indian Psychological Thought in the Age of Globalization
In this chapter we will consider how Indian psychological thought may fare as globalization creates a new world order. Currently, globalization means Westernization, and hence a loss of cultural diversity. But with the rise of India and China a more even balance will emerge, within which Indian psychological thought will have the opportunity to play a more influential role than hitherto.
Information technology is a major driver of globalization and has brought about an exponential rise in communication and exchange; what Anthony Giddens calls ‘The Runaway World’ (Giddens, 2002). This is the most recent stage of modernity, the industrial-urban phase of human cultural evolution that is now some four centuries old. Early modernity saw the colonial expansion of Western influence while the present postcolonial stage is seeing Eastern cultures resume their former places. This geopolitical re-balancing will be the context for the reception of Indian ideas in the coming century.
The Internet, a major feature of the postcolonial world order, makes it increasingly easy for people to learn about other cultures and even to participate in them. This will lead to Indian traditions becoming better known as more people will then seek them out or come across them by accident. Devotees of Indian culture may fear that this will lead to devaluation and distortion, but they need not worry. Traditions that have survived thousands of years of internal struggles, as well as centuries of colonialism, will be resilient enough to resist the cultural homogenization of the Internet. In fact, the recombinant culture of a globalized world order, with its eclectic debates, may actually suit Indian traditions very well. As Amartya Sen makes clear, disputation, diversity and synthesis are fundamental features of Indian intellectual traditions (Sen, 2005). So, they will not merely survive globalization, they are likely to thrive.
The technological benefits of modernity created a cultural myth of progress and wellbeing. Now, however, the costs are all too apparent. The unsustainable environmental impact of consumerism is increasingly clear. Westernized lifestyles pose a threat to the integrity of the biological systems on which life depends and, hence, to the well-being of us all. We have entered ‘Anthropocene’, a period of evolution in which it appears that human activity is capable of doing fundamental damage to the biosphere. Fostering human wellbeing in the Anthropocene is the major collective task facing humankind (see for example, Sachs, 2007).
Against this backdrop, we will here examine why Buddhism has been more widely received outside India than some other Indian traditions. We will then look at the postmodern condition of Westernized cultures, paying special attention to changes in the scientific worldview. It will be suggested that these changes, illustrated here by the case of quantum physics, have implications for how Indian psychological ideas and practices are received. The chapter will end by considering the role that Indian traditions more generally might play in promoting human wellbeing in the Anthropocene.
Why has Buddhism Spread while other Indian Traditions have not?
In what follows, we will have relatively little to say about the vast range of Indian psychological thought in general but will instead concentrate on Buddhism. There are two main reasons for this. One is that it is possibly the best known of Indian traditions outside India. The other is that the approach to mental life found in early Buddhism turns out to be richly comparable with contemporary Western thought.
In the Harrapan–Aryan origins of Indian thought we find earthy ritual, spiritual insight and intellectual speculation. In Hinduism, we find a condition of dynamic stability in which no element has predominated. Hinduism has provided the basis for a cultural system that has survived through millennia of reconfiguration. From Westernized perspectives, Hinduism can appear chaotic and inconsistent because it is hard to place within Western terms such as ‘religion’, ‘philosophy’, ‘culture’ or ‘society’, and because of the distortion resulting from the projection of Western cultural assumptions and values. Hinduism is actually no less orderly or consistent than other major cultural systems, but can appear so if its depth and richness are filtered through an inappropriate conceptual vocabulary.
The barriers to understanding Hinduism encountered during the colonial period are well known. The miscegenation of human and animal forms and the complexity of Hindu myths offended the sensibilities of Muslims and Christians alike, who, sharing a notion of a single Godhead, could find little accommodation with a multiplicity of gods. Nor could the scientific-rational character of Western colonial thought find much common ground with the spiritualized intellects of Śaṅkara or Nāgarjuna. From Locke through to the Utilitarians, British political and philosophical thought had placed primary importance on the rights and responsibilities of the individual. To understand Ātman and Brahman in the spirit of Hinduism and to see individuals as part of a greater whole was a near impossible task, even for those well disposed towards Indian thought.
The Western distaste for the caste system likewise arose because their ideals of social equality were based on the assumed equality of individual rights and duties. While the caste system is also concerned with rights and duties, it does so using the notion of Karma; without the Western view of individual equality, it was bound to be misunderstood. In these and in many other ways, Indian thought evaded Western categories. Of course, for Indian thinkers this was not particularly important. Gandhiji did not classify Hinduism as a religion or a philosophy but was content to describe it as simply the Indian Way of Life.
This being so, it is not so surprising that some Indian traditions have not spread far or penetrated deeply into other cultures. If we consider the reception of Indian thought in the West over the past few centuries, we find that real engagement with it is generally limited to the academy. This is true even of cultures like Britain which had prolonged contact with India. To this day, even though there are many genuine followers of Hinduism in the West, popular knowledge of Hindu traditions is limited and in some cases rather superficial. It is hard for Westerners to see the unified foundations below the colourfully diverse surface of Hindu practices. Moreover, the intellectual and spiritual discipline required for informed engagement with Hinduism are often too formidable, for even the well-disposed scholar.
Buddhism and Jainism are interesting contrastive cases here. Jainism is not widely practiced outside India while Buddhism has from its earliest days been taken up in other cultures. In contemporary Western cultures, Jainism is relatively unknown while Buddhism is sometimes described as the West's fastest growing religion.
There is no single reason for this, but the extreme austerity of Jainism must play a role. While many Buddhist traditions are also austere, they mix this with a tolerance of human limitations and of the compromises needed to be made in order to live in the world of ordinary human experience. While the founding figure of Jainism, Mahāvīra, starved himself to death, the Buddha stopped short and took nourishment. This human act and the advocacy of the middle way are something that can be universally recognised. We can likewise recognise ahiṁsā as a general moral injunction, perhaps with similarities to the Christian notion of stewardship. However, it is more difficult to recognize when elevated into the Jain ideal of absolute harmlessness, where all living things are assumed to have the capacity to suffer. This is a difficult notion to translate into Western terms, even though similar ideas having a long history can be found in contemporary sources (for example, DeQuincey, 2002).
By contrast, Buddhism has proved more acceptable to people from different cultural backgrounds. The fact of suffering, the first of the four noble truths, is simply and painfully apparent. That having been accepted, it prepares the way for the other three to be taken up as matters to be investigated. It is also significant that the originating narrative of Buddhism is one in which a heroic individual endures and then overcomes great hardships. There is a deep resemblance to Christianity here and Buddhism may have a particular attraction for those in societies shaped by Christianity who, while unable to be Christian, are seeking a spiritual path. They may pre-consciously feel that Buddhism is what a spiritual discipline should be like.
Buddhism may also be more acceptable in the West because of the emphasis it places on personal responsibility. The break with Brahminism has a deep correspondence with the break with Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation. In both cases individuals became more responsible for their own salvation and no longer needed to have a priestly class to perform rituals on their behalf. But just as Buddhism retained the doctrine of Karma and its remediation through skillful action, so Protestantism retained the notion of sin and of redemption through effort and virtuous conduct. Max Weber identified this ethic as one of the cultural drivers of early capitalism and modernity (Weber, 1904). In both cases, what improvements individuals can make to their lives depends entirely on how they act.
This is a particular case of the more general way in which Buddhism matches the cultural patterns in Western societies in general and in their educational practices in particular. In both traditions, taking responsibility for one's actions and one's progress as a human being is fundamental. It is the responsibility of the individual to acquire the means to live more skillfully.
One further factor that may contribute to the accessibility of Buddhism is its marginalization of metaphysics. The emphasis is on direct engagement with everyday experience and with how suffering can arise in meeting the immediate trials of life. Abstract or theoretical questions are not matters of primary concern. While the textual resources of Buddhism, the Abhidhamma for example, offer a profound inquiry into the nature of mental life, the heart of Buddhist teachings lies elsewhere. Engaging with the Suttas and the Vinaya does not require speculation on the nature of the mind or its relation to the cosmos. The doctrine of dependent origination likewise can be understood as a general proposition about physical and mental causality, but while it may invite further inquiry this is not essential to using Buddhism to manage more skillfully the actual mental lives we lead.
By sharp and critical contrast, most contemporary Western psychology purports to be an essentially scientific inquiry into mental life. Here, theoretical questions are primary. The belief is that the primary aim of psychology must be disinterested scientific understanding. Attempts to improve it are secondary and in any case should be aimed at the mental lives of others. Psychologists apply the results of scientific research in education, care of the mentally ill, the design of the workplace and so on. The psychologists’ own mental lives are seldom at issue.
Buddhism, however, is primarily a therapeutic system of mental practice that must include the individuals engaged with it. Its primary aim is to lessen suffering, something that is assumed to be a universal value for all and any experiencing beings. This being so, it could be thought that there is a significant barrier to any contact with Western psychology, which models itself on the value-free rational practices of scientific inquiry. In fact, the next section will sketch some contemporary changes in Western culture and the scientific worldview, which suggest why this is not so.
The Postmodern Turn
It was pointed out above that globalization is a recent feature of Modernity. This phase of human cultural evolution has been marked by an explosive growth in scientific knowledge ranging from the peculiarities of the sub-atomic world to the immensities of the cosmos. By the late nineteenth century, the success of science made it seem that a beneficial, unified, materialistic worldview would be able to account for all phenomena, including the human condition and consciousness. This was the meta-narrative of Modernity—that science would disclose the nature of the world and that what was discovered could be used to predict fully the consequences of any action and hence to create a better life for all.
The dark events of the twentieth century have radically challenged this belief. Major geopolitical conflicts have been a tragic reminder that the growth of knowledge in and of itself does not improve the conditions of life. Science and philosophy have revealed fundamental limits to what we can know and say about the world. Quantum phenomena, especially, demonstrate that detached observation is a special case and that what it discloses is fundamentally incomplete. The physical world has turned out to be subtly interconnected at all levels. Discoveries in a number of sciences have likewise shown that reducing complex organic systems in order to study the simplified parts only provides a limited type of understanding. Organic systems are complex wholes whose activity is only predictable when severe constraints are imposed. They are intrinsically historical, self-organizing and exhibit emergent properties not pre-figured in any particular part of the system. Thus no inventory of parts at a particular instant, however accurate and complete, could of itself predict or explain how the system as a whole behaves.
This and the wider questioning of previously accepted cultural certainties have led to profound scepticism towards the myth of Modernism and similarly all-embracing meta-narratives. This is the Postmodern condition of knowledge (Lyotard, 1984), in which the cultural image of science as the systematic, progressive and authoritative disclosure of pre-extant reality, has been re-framed. As one commentator put it, ‘…the Enlightenment's ascription to science of a prescriptive authority whereby other forms of knowledge can be humiliated is itself an illusion…a unitary scientific method, even a scientific world-view, is merely one of the many superstitions of enlightenment cultures’ (Gray, 1995, p. 154).
Some critics claim that postmodernism is a rejection of science and of the very idea that there is an external reality that can be investigated by scientific methods (for example, Polkinghorne, 2005, p. 4). This is wrong; postmodernism does not reject science nor devalue the scientific method. The scientific method is a trustworthy way of investigating the world, postmodernism notwithstanding.
It is more appropriate to see postmodernism as a logical extension to critical realism, the position of most scientists. This assumes there is an external world but that to know it requires an open epistemological stance and a continual effort critically to develop more powerful theories about it. This is also the aim of postmodernists, who seek to extend the resources of science by encouraging dialogue with other epistemological traditions. They are not attacking science or the rational empirical investigation but instead are creating a broader framework for knowledge, within which science takes its place as one among many ways of discovering, as the biologist John Haldane once put it, that ‘the universe is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose’.
The postmodern condition is one of radical pluralism, in which new meaning is synthesized from critical conversations between different traditions. No one view or intellectual framework need be taken as pre-eminent or final nor can a single conceptual vocabulary predominate. All forms of knowledge need to be approached historically. To engage with them requires becoming aware of how they were constructed and for what purposes.
This means a fundamental change in attitudes towards what is known. The modernist ideal of knowledge was that which was firm, factual and objective; something could be stated in the absolute, logical language of mathematics and geometry. In the postmodern framework this sort of knowledge, while it is accepted as true within its own domain, is regarded as an exception. The more general rule is that truth is made, not found. It is a function of context, a ‘way of seeing’ relative to a point of view and created within human discourse.
Critics object that if this is all that ‘postmodern’ means, then it is little more than a decline in confidence, an unproductive retreat into obscure relativism where nothing is morally or intellectually certain. Now there is indeed a danger here, since postmodernist discourse can degenerate into an impenetrable private language. Not only that, but in some cases this language is so misused that it becomes meaningless (for example, Sokal & Bricmount, 2003).
But such misunderstandings are due to the over-wrought language used in postmodernist literature. It remains clear that there has been a real cultural shift with a distinctive character. Postmodernism removes barriers to integration both within and between disciplines (Griffin, 1992, 1998). Used with proper caution, it is the means to bring about constructive advances in human knowledge and practice. The following section illustrates more fully what is meant by ‘constructive’ by briefly considering the case of quantum physics.
The Significance of Quantum Phenomena
Quantum phenomena are one of the major discoveries of twentieth century science. The predictions of quantum theory have been confirmed by experimental observations to a degree that makes it the most successful theory in the history of physics. Its applications underlie a vast range of scientific and technological practices including much of the information processing technology that has transformed our world.
But for all that quantum phenomena are well enough understood, well enough, for example, to have been the basis for major technological innovations, their deeper nature is still a puzzle. They show that there are limits to what we can know about the physical world. They show that if there are fundamental building blocks of matter they are more like events than substances. They show that events in what appear to be spatially separate places are interdependent such that they are occurring in what is effectively the ‘same’ place. They show that physical events can occur without any cause that human inquiry can disclose.
Summarizing these extraordinary findings, one could say that while physicists can agree what quantum phenomena are, they are at a loss when it comes to what they mean. We remain in what Popper called a ‘metaphysical muddle’. This has led more than one physicist to say: ‘If you're not mystified by quantum physics, then you haven't understood it properly’.
What makes the findings of quantum physics even more intriguing is that they have the flavour of consciousness about them. For example, when Paul Dirac, a major figure in the development of quantum physics, was asked what brings about physical events for which causes cannot be found, he replied: ‘Nature makes a choice’ (Malin, 2001, p. 127). Now physicists occasionally use phenomenological language such as ‘choose’, ‘know’, ‘want’ and ‘feel’ to describe the behaviour of substances. But we generally take this to be metaphorical and assume that the literal use of these predicates is reserved for living, intentional systems.
And yet in quantum physics we are far more likely to encounter this sort of talk. Now to say a particle ‘knows’ something may make those seeking to reduce mental events to physical ones uneasy. However, for those with a more open stance towards the mind–body problem, the attribution of elementary sentience to matter itself is exciting and suggestive.
Wolfgang Pauli, a major figure in the development of quantum physics, was deeply impressed by the implications of quantum phenomena. With the psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung he explored an integrated world view, one that Jung, borrowing from medieval alchemical traditions, called the unus mundus, the ‘unified world’. This was an ontological claim that there exists an underlying level of Being that is both mental and material. Jung, who called this the ‘psychoid’ level, puts it thus: ‘It accords better with experience to suppose that living matter has a psychic aspect and that the psyche a physical aspect’ (Jung, 1953, Vol. 10, para. 780); and again: ‘Microphysics is feeling its way into the unknown side of matter, just as complex psychology is pushing forward into the unknown side of the psyche. Both lines of investigation have yielded findings which can be conceived of only by means of antinomies, and both have developed concepts which display remarkable analogies’ (Jung, 1953, Vol. 14, para. 768).
Antinomies, that is, apparently irreconcilable truths, are signs that we have arrived at the boundaries of what we know, where concepts may have to be revised or relativized. The difficulties of applying the findings of quantum physics to psychological research indicates the presence of just such a boundary. Such conditions, though, can lead to distortion. Quantum phenomena are all too often misused to support shallow mysticism or vague anti-scientism. Yet, despite their misuse, there is something about quantum phenomena that hints at consciousness. This is to be welcomed since, unless we are to regard consciousness as a special case, somehow outside the natural order of things, the science of matter must be the science of consciousness too.
What makes quantum physics seem so relevant to consciousness is not that it shows us what the physical world is, but what it's not. It shows that the ontology of nineteenth century physics, the classical scientific worldview, cannot be taken as the final word. That framework, while powerful and correct within its limits, encouraged the idea that consciousness had to be qualitatively different from the physical world, perhaps the property of a special substance like Descartes’ res cogitans.
It is here that the pluralism of the postmodern turn becomes relevant. Quantum physics is not only a scientific theory, but also evidence of a deeper shift away from the classical worldview, which was also the worldview of modernity. The significance of any scientific theory lies not just in what it may be telling us about the physical world but also in how it changes how we think about broader issues, such as the place of consciousness in the material world. The discovery of quantum phenomena along with other developments, such as dynamic systems theory and chaos theory, has profoundly changed the scientific worldview. This change is not yet well understood and is often over-extended, but even so it allows us more freedom than before to investigate how the mind and matter may be related. This freedom can be expressed in a postmodern synthesis of issues that may have had to be kept separate within a modernist framework.
The postmodern re-appraisal of science makes it easier to recognize that scientific inquiry, as well as being an empirical exercise based on rational logic is also a creative construction driven by aesthetic, religious and cultural values. This was the view of Pauli, who also believed that as we probe more deeply into matter, we encounter mind-like phenomena. Jung believed that as we probe more deeply into the psyche we discover a material world of archetypal forms.
Jung remains a marginal and controversial figure in Western psychology. Pauli tended to conceal his deeper beliefs, only sharing them in letters to his closer colleagues. If we are to take radical pluralism seriously, we can approach the proposals of Pauli and Jung with a new even-handedness. They are not to be taken as right or definitive. Instead we may seek a critical accommodation, and an open-minded exploration of what may or may not correspond in different epistemological traditions. The significance of this situation here is that we may treat the interaction between Buddhism and scientific psychology in something of the same way, rather than assuming a priori that it is a category mistake to compare religion and science.
This is particularly important when we recall that scientific psychology emerged from a late nineteenth century union of philosophy and physiology, when science was making confident progress and religion was in retreat. This confidence was felt in the life sciences too, and since nature included mental life, the founders of modern psychology expected the discipline would eventually become a branch of physics. Religions were dismissed as superstitious dogmas inherently opposed to science. They would be left behind as humanity ascended into the broad sunlit uplands of rational acquaintance with its own condition. Ernst Haeckel, the advocate of Darwinism in Germany, declared in 1899: ‘The great abstract law of mechanical causality now rules the entire universe, as it does the mind of man. It is the steady, immutable pole star, whose clear light falls on our path through the labyrinth of the countless separate phenomena’ (Haeckel, 1899).
While most founders of scientific psychology shared such extreme materialist views, some did not. Fechner, for example—whose credentials as an experimentalist were impeccable—nonetheless wanted psychology to engage with the subjective realms of mental life, even with mysticism. William James, although he too was as enthusiastic as Haeckel about a science of mental life conducted in laboratories equipped with ‘great brass instruments’, took a more modest view of what merely physical investigations could show: ‘…nature in her unfathomable designs has mixed us of clay and flame, of brain and mind, the two things hang indubitably together and determine each other's being, but how or why, no mortal may ever know’ (James, 1918, p. 200).
James notwithstanding, the ethos of psychology in the twentieth century was mechanistic and remains so. Explicitly or otherwise, the discipline is conducted in the belief, or hope, that nature, including human nature, can be completely understood in terms of physics. It is this that makes the postmodern turn and the quantum conundrum significant. For psychology to adopt the metaphysics of nineteenth century science is an encumbrance. The dynamic unfolding of human mental life is the most complex phenomenon known to science. Within it, patterns of organic causation dialectically unite parts to wholes and the wholes to parts. Attempting to isolate particular parts, particular types of causes, and to reduce the whole to a physical system alone, is quite inappropriate as a general epistemological framework. A pluralistic discipline in which views from other traditions can play a role is what is needed.
This is not to reject science's findings or its methodology. It is, however, to recognize that what they may have led us to think of as universal and absolute are actually more relative and historically contingent than we supposed. Richard Rorty takes this as a sign of intellectual maturity. Like his role-model John Dewey, he feels it is naive to believe that science and philosophy are discovering eternal, pre-extant, truths. Instead, they are participants in the constantly diversifying conversations through which human beings attempt to coordinate their views of the world and to lead their lives together. As Rorty puts it: ‘…many of the things that common sense thinks are found or discovered, are really made or invented’ (Rorty, 1999, p. xvii).
This does not mean that enthusiasm for science has diminished. Life sciences like cognitive neuroscience and informatics presently have the status that physics and chemistry had at the end of the nineteenth century. However, the cultural context is different. Given the concern with the ecological impact of human activity, science and technology are treated with caution rather than being uncritically hailed as progressive. Scientific discoveries are not now taken to be the privileged disclosure of how the world ‘really is’. Instead, they are treated more as provisional creations suffused with cultural values. They are part of what Ernest Becker called the ‘fragile fiction’, the symbolic worldview which people construct in order to make sense of a world not of their making (Becker, 1971).
Rorty notes that it is no longer possible to establish what he calls a ‘normal discourse’. This is a primary explanatory vocabulary which necessarily underlies all other ways of describing the world. The belief that a normal discourse exists and can be found drives the scientific search for ‘Theories of Everything’. The same belief underlies ill informed fears of science. More informed fear of science is that even though a normal discourse cannot be found, if science to be driven by the belief that it can, it is likely to be harmful. Informed or otherwise, the fear of science is the fear that the world, and us with it, will be made too comprehensible. As Rorty puts it, ‘The fear of science, of “scientism”, of “naturalism”, of self-objectivation, of being turned by too much knowledge into a thing rather than a person, is the fear that all discourse will become normal discourse’ (Rorty, 1980, p. 388).
It is with this fear that the theoretical and methodological pluralism of the postmodern turn can help. Practices and insights from other systems of knowledge are entering into a new and more balanced discourse with science (Griffin, 1988). This is not mere ‘anything goes’ relativism, but a move towards the discursive production of knowledge through dialogue. Rather than one particular tradition claiming to have the final say, new meanings are synthesized in informed conversations between traditions. Inevitably, the movements of history will mean that from time to time some traditions will have greater influence than others. Presently globalization gives undue weight to Western traditions and distorts Eastern ones, but with the rapid rise of India and China this is bound to change.
Thus, and in contrast to the condition of intellectual culture when modern psychology appeared, the interchange between Western science and Eastern traditions can proceed in a more even handed way. This being the case, interaction between Buddhism and psychology can be looked at in a new light. Both traditions aim to discover the nature of mental life, so even though they originate from very different cultural contexts this should not rule out genuine critical interaction between them. Additionally, the postmodern turn has precipitated changes in psychology that are discussed in the next section. The significance of these changes, like those in physics, is that they make interaction between Western and Asian traditions more plausible.
Changes in Psychology
Postmodernism has diversified both the theory and methods of psychology (Gergen, 2001; Kvale, 1992). The changes to be sketched here concern the return of consciousness as a central topic of mainstream research and the acceptance of feeling and experience as primary psychological data. These developments are helping to rid psychology of the implicit mechanism it inherited from the intellectual context at the time of its emergence and which hinder interchange with other traditions for investigating mental life.
The mechanistic metaphysics of nineteenth century science and ethos of objectivity were both implicit in the two paradigms that dominated modern psychology, behaviourism and cognitivism. As a result psychology in this period was wary of subjective data and consciousness was either ignored or reduced to neurological mechanisms.
Behaviourism considered subjective mental processes to be methodologically intractable. As they could neither be observed directly nor quantified, no properly scientific account could be given for them, and thoughts, feelings, emotions and consciousness were virtually ignored. Behaviourists limited themselves to observing the external manifestations of mental life and it seemed almost to be a point of honour to deny common experiences any place in psychology. In this the model was the timeless world of classical physics, where nothing objective can be found to correspond with the subjective experience of ‘now’. Thus, for example, the experience of time, with a remembered past and an anticipated future, was merely phenomenological illusion that would, eventually, be dispelled by more objective data.
Behaviourism was successful up to a point and has left a legacy of effective techniques. But it also had major shortcomings, and many experiments of the era were unnatural, animals pressing levers in cages being the paradigmatic case. It was also unable to provide a satisfactory account for reflexive and open aspects of human mental life, such as language and creative problem-solving.
Concern about such shortcomings reached a critical mass soon after the halfway point of the century when behaviourism was rather suddenly displaced as psychology's central paradigm in what is sometimes called the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ (Gardner, 1985). Cognitive psychology, or cognitivism as it will be called here, approached the mind as if it was an information processing system like a computer. Computational models of mental processes were tested against human performance in more natural experiments on perceiving, remembering, making decisions, solving problems and using language.
By the end of the twentieth century, cognitivism had become the principal paradigm of mainstream psychology. The assumption was that the essence of mental life is computational and hence, since it could be formalised as quasi-mathematical instructions, it had to be treated separately from culture and even from biology (see, for example, Newell, 1991; Gardner, 1985, p. 6). However, the vocabulary was expressed in third-person terms, that is, how the mind seems from the outside. How it seems from the inside, the first-person world of feelings, values and experience, was secondary. This was something that would be properly understood once psychology had framed a universal theory of cognition in computational terms.
Thus, cognitivism, like behaviourism before it, left psychology at a reductive impasse. To assume that a complete, formal computational account might be found for human mental life harks back to the reductive mechanism of the late nineteenth century. Although cognitivism has been useful, computation per se no longer seems a plausible candidate for a universal psychological theory. It has become clear that to seek a computational theory of mind, which is in any case merely an attempt to give psychology the authority of natural science, was a restrictive mistake.
This restriction is easing and alternatives to the cognitivism approach have appeared. Here we will deal briefly with three of them: connectionism, dynamic systems and embodied cognition. While fairly technical matters in themselves, their significance here is that they open the way to more realistic interaction with Buddhism.
Connectionism is a critical response to the idea that the activity of the brain was, essentially, computation. Brains lack the necessary functional architecture to make this proposition biologically plausible. Instead of well-defined locations where information is stored and processed, brains comprise densely interconnected networks whose patterns of activity are far more fluid than formal computational theory requires. Connectionism is an attempt to understand this activity from the bottom up, as it were, by making models of the massively parallel activity of natural nervous systems. These networks can be autonomous and become actively attuned to their environment.
How well neural networks serve as psychological models, is not yet clear. Even the very largest networks so far constructed are minute when compared with natural nervous systems. Whatever their significance turns out to be, the point of interest here is that connectionist models are necessarily historical. Cognitivism proposed that the essence of mental life could be captured in formal computational principles that were hence independent of the history of the mental being concerned. Connectionism, by contrast, is a psychological theory without essences. Where cognitivism proposed rules and representations, connectionism proposes only connections, activity and history. These are taken to be analogous to the activity underlying mental life. Any particular state of a network, and thus by analogy any mental state, is explained in terms of the conditions that gave rise to it. There is a striking resemblance here to the Buddhist view that mental life reflects the ceaseless arising of conditions.
Other critical responses to cognitivism are the closely related dynamic systems approach and theories of embodied cognition (for example, Clark, 1999; Van Gelder & Port, 1995). Taken together, these paradigms treat mental life as a reflection of the particular evolved organic system in which it is expressed. While cognitivism treated organisms as if their nervous systems were computationally identical, the embodied dynamic systems approach by contrast takes the nervous system to be engaged in a cyclic process of adjustment to the flow of action in which particular organisms participate. Now different organisms act in fundamentally different ways. Accordingly, rather than treating all nervous systems as if they performed identical computational functions, the dynamic systems approach treats them as participants in unique patterns of activity. However, these patterns are assumed to extend beyond the organism and to reflect the particular conditions in which the activity occurs, activity in the whole system being a form of sensitive chaos. The similarity to Buddhist notions of interdependence is again striking.
The growth in connectionism, theories of embodied cognition and the dynamic systems approach all indicate that psychology is ‘Reclaiming Cognition’ from the mechanistic metaphor of cognitivism (Nunez & Freeman, 1999). Mental life cannot be formalized. Instead, it has to be treated as an aspect of organic action, inseparable from the biological and cultural processes which are its vehicle. With the move towards embodiment, emotion and feeling are once again being treated as the core of mental life (Damasio, 1996, 1999).
This is not a new idea, William James having recognized just that when laying the foundations of the Science of Mental Life, to use his never-bettered name for psychology. That James’ insight was subsequently so thoroughly ignored shows how far behaviourism and cognitivism took psychology from the world of everyday lived experience. There, it is patent that feeling, and not reason, is the essence of psychological life.
The reclaiming of cognition has prompted an explosion of interest in consciousness, bringing psychology face to face with awareness itself (Chalmers, 1997; Shear et al., 1999). Consciousness is once again at the centre of the research arena, where William James originally put it. It is a uniquely significant phenomenon for scientific investigation since, to investigate it properly, science will have to enlarge both its methods and its worldview. Phenomenological methods are increasingly used in psychology and since there is some unfamiliarity and mistrust of them, traditions where such methods have been used for millennia are recognised to have something to offer.
These developments will be important for the interaction with Buddhism in the coming decades, which is the concern of the final section of this article. The section will also offer some observations on the role Indian thought considered more broadly may play in the globalised problems that are facing us now and which seem set to become more serious as the twenty-first century unfolds.
Problems, Prospects and Possible Outcomes
From a popular Western viewpoint, many Indian traditions can appear colourfully mystical and detached from everyday life. But this is to project on to them a distinction between religious and secular matters that originates in Europe and has far less significance in Indian intellectual history. It is easy to miss how the breadth and refinement of, say Vedānta, is grounded in a refined critical analysis of the relationship between mental and physical reality. Likewise, the continuity of the erotic and the spiritual, while a commonplace in Hinduism, can seem inappropriate or even blasphemous in some Abrahamic traditions, while the psychological insights found in early Buddhism, are given relatively little attention compared with the meditative techniques on which they are based.
This sort of selective distortion was very much in play during the eras of cognitivism and behaviourism, when the ethos of mainstream psychology was essentially that of nineteenth century science. The assumption was that religious traditions, being concerned with beliefs and values, could have no real interaction with science, the latter being concerned with hypotheses and empirically testable facts. Faith and reason do not mix; to compare them was a category mistake.
This attitude has restricted contact with most Indian psychological thought, although psychologists did occasionally note that Buddhism presents an account of mental life comparable with Western systems (for example, Thouless, 1940; Suzuki, Fromm & De Martino, 1974). There was also an increase in contact with Buddhism in the 1960s but it suffered from the superficiality of the then fashionable engagement with all things Eastern. Subsequently, though, there has been more informed work (for example, Payne, 2002).
The prospects for interaction are improving, but many limitations remain, some of them being distant echoes of the assumed opposition of science and religion. But, ironically, since science now provides most people with their creation myth, their image of themselves and an understanding of their relation to the rest of the universe, it has had to take on the cultural roles of religion. For most scientists this is unwelcome as it seems to compromise the integrity of science. But this would only be true if science is inappropriately saddled with being a uniquely authoritative, progressive human understanding, replacing all others.
Now science does in fact deserve a special place—it has permitted the technological control of the material world to an unprecedented degree. However, the postmodern re-appraisal shows that science's hypotheses and methods also reflect their cultural context, just as much as other cultural practices do. To frame a hypothesis about a phenomenon is to express a belief about what sort of a thing it might be. Likewise, to choose a method of observation is to make a value judgment about how best to allow a phenomenon to disclose itself. The choices and beliefs found in science will reflect their cultural context just as much as those expressed in, say, religious traditions.
It is unrealistic to believe that science is somehow outside the more universal arena of inquiry within which Indian traditions also approach the common phenomena of human existence. Vedānta provides an inclusive ontology covering both mental and physical levels of being. Buddhism investigates mental life in ways that have been critically and systematically developed over millennia. There is every reason to suppose that traditions such as these will complement the scientific investigation of the mind. It is unhelpful to reject them merely because of the supposed incompatibility of science and religion inherited from the last few centuries of Western thought.
More helpful is the postmodern shift in the scientific worldview which has begun to transcend the limitations of nineteenth century mechanicism. This change began some decades ago and by 1995 had become clear enough to lead one commentator to observe, ‘…has there perhaps been an intriguing sea-change in much of contemporary science, such that, after several hundred years of specific concentration on the linear and the inanimate, we are now beginning to seek out those physical properties of nature that actually mirror the form of our own existence?’ (Hunt, 1995, p. 59). For Western science to discover that nature exhibits physical properties that ‘mirror the form of our own existence’ is for it to arrive at the point from which Vedic traditions began (for example, Narasimha, 2004). The last decade or so has seen a resurgence of Western interest in pan-experientialism, the idea that sentience may exist at all levels of nature (for example, Clarke, 2004; de Quincey, 2002).
Such an idea would have seemed absurd at the end of the nineteenth century, when mechanicism seemed the universal rule while consciousness was the exception. Now, as discoveries in quantum physics and in dynamic systems theory bring such beliefs into question, the situation has almost reversed and we find suggestions that consciousness must be considered as a fundamental aspect of nature (for example, Chalmers, 1997; Strawson, 2006) and that to make a division between the mental and physical realms is to introduce a false boundary into the universe (Bohm & Hiley, 1993, p. 386). As the editor of a recent symposium on science and religion puts it: ‘A revolution is in process in our view of the cosmos. Rather than expiring as mandated by the second law of thermodynamics,…scientists…find a natural tendency in the cosmos to organize into nested orders of complexity’ (Gregersen, 2003, introduction).
To summarize, mechanistic metaphysics is being displaced by an organic, process-like worldview (Gregersen, 2003; Griffin, 1998). Process philosophy is an enduring strand in Western thought that stretches from pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Heraclitus, who may in any case have been influenced by Indian traditions (for example, McEvilley, 2002, p. xxxi), to more recent figures such as James, Bergson and Bohm (Rescher, 1996; 2000). Although they express it in different ways, these philosophers shared the view that mind is a part of, not apart from, what Whitehead called ‘the creative advance of nature’ (Whitehead, 1920, p. 178). It is significant here that process philosophy is again attracting attention, since paradigm shifts actually start with a revision of implicit metaphysics (for example, Gare, 1999, p. 128). Also significant, and anticipating a theme that will end this chapter, it is noteworthy that the resurgence of interest in Bergson has been linked to the current concerns with the effects of human activity on the environment (Gunter, 1999).
These changes reflect a deeper return to process in Western metaphysics. This lessens hindrances to the interaction with Buddhism and other Indian traditions. These hindrances tend to linger on in psychology. Since the discipline has had to struggle to gain the status of a science, it is slow to notice that the scientific model it strives to imitate has been superseded. But with the decline of cognitivism and with the return of vigorous interest in consciousness, there has come an increased contact with phenomenological traditions (Varela & Shear, 1999). Treatments of selfhood and of the place of consciousness within the wider order of nature are now appearing. These are often influenced by Buddhism (for example, Macy, 1991; Clark, 1991; Parfitt, 1987). The resemblance to annatta, is direct and striking. Instead of a Cartesian substance, selfhood is seen as dynamic, interconnected, primordially relational and fundamentally without essence (Pickering, 1997).
In fact, this is not a good time for essentialism in general. The mechanistic metaphysics of the nineteenth century has been overtaken by a process worldview, which is activity without essences. In theories of evolution, development and cognition, a systems view is displacing attempts to explain the dynamics of complex wholes by attributing causal powers to their parts (for example, Oyama, 2001). Rather than some unique human essence or nature, the view is now being taken that cycles of contingent causality are the underlying field of being from which organic action, human cognition and culture emerge (Rosch, 1994). In psychology too, interaction with Buddhism has recovered from the superficiality of the 1960's and now demonstrates maturity and critical depth (for example, Rao, 2002; Waldron, 2000).
Questions arise here that go beyond mere methodology to the purpose of investigating the mind. Buddhism values personal, direct investigation as it is readily available and, with appropriate training, the distortion introduced by personal preferences and assumptions can be reduced or even eliminated. Such investigation is considered to be intrinsically valuable since it enables the investigator to live more skillfully. Cognitivism, by contrast, following the ethos of nineteenth century science, put most value on depersonalized investigation, which, apart from logical truth-values, was otherwise assumed to be value-neutral. How skillfully psychologists themselves lived was neither here nor there. Of course, in the spirit of science as a sign of beneficial progress, it was assumed that cognitivism would eventually help to improve the conditions of life.
However, the postmodern turn takes us beyond the unlikely fiction of value-neutral knowledge. Knowledge becomes value laden by virtue of the manner and purpose of getting it. Scientific ends often begin as and always end up as technological means. This is particularly important for psychology to take on board since it is the science that is most directly mirrors the human condition. If psychology ignores feeling, concentrates on rational cognitive processes, marginalizes subjectivity, adopts mechanistic metaphysics and aims for prediction and control, then the outlook for human autonomy is poor. The actual experience of human beings cannot appear in such a science. It is as if we look into a mirror only to find we are not reflected in it.
If instead psychology's metaphysical framework was the ceaseless arising of conditions without essence, then it would more directly reflect the world of lived experience, as William James proposed. The developments in psychology that have been sketched here, especially the embodied treatment of cognition and the increasing influence of dynamic systems theory, shift attention towards wholes and away from parts.
Methodologically too, things are also changing for the better. Phenomenology, qualitative methods and first-person data, have rapidly become more acceptable in mainstream psychology. It is clear that while third-person data are reliable and powerful, is a reductive mistake to assume that on their own they could provide a complete account of experience. To understand how human experience is bound up in the systems that support it will also require first-person investigation, changing science's methods and its image. This is the peculiar challenge in investigating consciousness—to preserve the integrity of scientific methods whilst at the same time broadening them to treat the world of lived experience.
Buddhism starts with that world and deals with it in ways that everyone, including scientists, can recognize. While scientific psychology makes a distinctive contribution, it is nevertheless a highly specialized one, tied to a particular era and cultural milieu. Cognitivism did not in general help people to understand their own experience, nor was it intended to do so. By contrast, the accessibility and endurance of Buddhism testifies that human beings can recognize in it something universal about their own lived experience.
Now the findings of science are also supposed to be universal. However, while this is easily demonstrable in the physical sciences, it is less so in the life and social sciences and in mainstream experimental psychology, it is even more questionable. Science expresses the outward-directedness of Western thought over the last millennium. This dominates the study of the mind, despite the fact that the principal thing we know about it is our inner experience, what mental life feels like from the inside. Third-person descriptions of mental life are taken to be uniquely reliable. First-person accounts, by contrast, have been treated with suspicion in Western psychology because attempts to use them have been said to have failed. This suspicion extends to meditative traditions where there appears to be no equivalent of the controlled experiments and publicly verifiable data required of scientific research. Even serious research on meditation can still lapse into something akin to orientalism by treating meditation as an anthropological curiosity—an esoteric practice of another culture, often by implication, a more primitive one.
Those more familiar with Indian traditions will recognize that this is not a well-informed position. The practice of meditation can be as systematic and critical as any scientific programme. Charles Tart, a psychologist with highly respected scientific credentials as well as experience with meditation has recently put it thus: ‘My professional and personal studies on consciousness, especially mindfulness meditation (vipassana), have convinced me that ordinary consciousness is quite undifferentiated and unskillful at observing its own manifestations— hence the failures of early Western attempts at an introspective psychology that was to be a science of the mind per se. But we can learn to become much more discriminative observers of our own mental processes. Western psychology gave up far too early trying to become a science with mental events as primary data—we simply weren't trained’ (Tart, 1999).
But mistrust of meditation is also diminishing. It was due in part to the projective distortion of Indian traditions of which we are now more aware, following the work of Carl Jung, Edward Said and the postmodern insight into the vicissitudes of working with knowledge. It was also in part a reaction to the superficiality of the 1960s, when Indian traditions were too often trivialized into spiritual fashion-accessories. Things have improved greatly in the past few decades with better teachings and more balanced research. Many psychologists, like Tart, now have some experience of the direct engagement with mental life that meditation provides (for example, Rosch, 1997).
However, despite the changes sketched here, the clear and important differences between scientific psychology and Indian traditions will need to be borne in mind. There will remain a necessary tension between meditation and conventional scientific methods. Private experience obtained under special conditions and after special training does not rest easily alongside the public data of experimental science.
Many psychologists, though, are beginning to recognize that the way forward is not to exclude any method of studying mental life but continually to enrich their synthesis. Moreover, in the conditions created by the postmodern turn, globalization and the ecological crisis, psychologists, scientists and others are asking more urgent questions about both the nature and value of their disciplines.
The synthesis suggested above may enrich psychological research but it also raises a broader question: what sort of knowledge of the mind do we want and why do we want it?
Presently we appear to be facing a serious ecological crisis, the basic cause of which is the alienation of human experience from the broader natural order of things. This alienation can be traced back to the scientific revolution in Europe, which was a struggle between free thought and the repressive forces of corrupted religion. That struggle won, science and technology explosively increased human control over nature, eventually creating the runaway world in which we now live.
But, as the cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin realized, when cultures lose control of the technological forces they have unleashed, the result is violence (Benjamin, 1936). While the most obvious forms of violence are between people, like wars, in the background there is a prolonged war against nature that began with the industrial revolution. Nature has become transformed from a home for life into mere resource for human purposes. In this condition, which many people experience, both consciously and otherwise, as the painful destruction of our own home and that of our descendants, there is a deep malaise. People living urban lives dominated by technology, no longer feel at home in the world.
Thus, the ecological crisis is at base a psychological crisis. However, most contemporary Western psychology ignores it and instead merely investigates human mental life in a spirit of scientific detachment. This would be perfectly legitimate if human beings were living sustainably, but there is mounting evidence to show that we are not. We have been consuming natural resources faster than they are replaced for over twenty years now. Of course, here ‘we’ refers to people living Westernized lifestyles. But, driven by the images that pour out of television and the Internet, people in rapidly industrializing countries like India and China naturally aspire to such lifestyles. Dream-like fables of desirable things leap off screens and into the minds of children, exciting and conditioning the next generation of consumers to grasp for lifestyles the earth cannot support without violence.
It has been estimated that if the present population of the earth were all to live Westernized lifestyles, the natural resources of two extra earths would be needed. But they are not available; the world's population is rapidly increasing and space travel is not an option. There is widespread recognition that in a world being eaten up by excess, to live simply does not just mean to live well but simply to live. The collective project of human kind thus has to be to conserve the capacity of the earth to sustain us all.
It is here that Indian psychological traditions in general can play a unique role. There is a deep ecological sensitivity to be found in their earthy Vedic–Harappan origins (for example, Chapple & Tucker, 2000; Shiva, 2005). More specifically, Buddhist views of the human phenomenon stress its organic interdependence on the world around it (Macy, 1991; Schumacher, 1973; Hillman, 1995).
More ecological destruction is inevitable as the globalized forces of technology pass further out of human control. We have to accept that the momentum of contemporary geopolitics being what it is there is not going to be a rapid change of direction here. But in the longer term perhaps we can hope for a slower and more fundamental change towards a stable condition, where human lifestyles have moderated and converged to a equitable and sustainable global balance (Hillman, 2004).
The political and economic changes this requires have to begin in human feelings rather than in intellectual discussion. As Theodore Roszak puts it, ‘The great changes our runaway industrial civilisation must make if we are to keep the planet healthy will not come about by the force of reason alone or the influence of fact. Rather, they will come by way of psychological transformation. What the earth requires will have to make itself felt within us as if it were our own most private desire’ (Roszak, 2001, p. 48).
A psychology that merely deals in mechanized models of the intellect will be of little use here. Thus the changes sketched above are a move in the right direction. Likewise, an informed synthesis of Western and Eastern traditions will help create a more balanced science of mental life and one more relevant to the problems facing us. This objective is not confined to psychologists, but has been expressed by scientists of all types. For example, Heisenberg, a major figure in the development of quantum physics, when speaking to Jagadeesh Mehra in 1975, observed: ‘You know, in the West we have built a large beautiful ship. It has all the comforts in it, but one thing is missing: it has no compass and does not know where to go. Men like Tagore and Gandhi and their spiritual forebears found the compass. Why can this compass not be put in the ship, so that both can realise their purpose?’ (Dutta & Robinson, 1995, p. 443).
Achieving such a synthesis while doing justice to both communities of knowledge will be difficult. But although it is easy to mis-attribute to Indian traditions things which are merely projections of contemporary Western concerns, with sufficiently sensitive scholarship, it can be done. Nor should the capacity of Western systems for radical revision be underestimated, as the rapid return of the process worldview demonstrates.
So long as these difficulties are recognized, they need not hinder the pursuit of the even-handed coming together of universal wisdom the world so badly needs. In the contemporary ‘Runaway World’ of increasingly complex cultural blending, we find a condition foreseen by Sri Aurobindo in 1914: ‘The world today presents the aspect of a huge cauldron of Medea in which all things are being cast, shredded into pieces, experimented on, combined and recombined either to perish and provide the scattered material of new forms or to emerge rejuvenated and changed for a fresh term of existence’ (1970, p. 1).
We see that Indian traditions can play a unique role in the coming century, helping with the common task of reducing unsustainably high levels of consumption and creating a more just world order. More than ever before, the troubled people of the global village are ready to recognize the wisdom in Gandhiji's remark: ‘The world has enough for everyone's needs but not for some people's greed’.
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